For families who live outside the 50-mile radius of St. Louis but who have children in a local hospital, Ronald McDonald House Charities (RMHC) provides them with a home away from home.

More than 2,000 families stay at the organization’s three area houses and eight long-term apartments each year. In addition to helping families financially, RMHC president Dan Harbaugh says that studies show children heal faster when mom and dad are nearby. Families can stay at one of the houses or apartments for $5 a night or less, if they can’t afford it—no family has ever been turned away because they can’t afford to pay. They have access to laundry facilities, kitchens, game and computer rooms, as well as playgrounds, workout rooms and transportation. But even more important than the houses and amenities, Harbaugh says, is the relationships families form there.

“All of these families are a great distance from their loved ones, friends and support systems,” he says. “But by living in this community environment, they become each others’ families. When they’re here, they’re not alone. They have a new set of friends who will help them through the difficult times, and will celebrate when something good happens.”

Even families living in St. Louis are touched by the Ronald McDonald House Charities. The local chapter has three in-hospital family rooms for families to seek refuge in the hospital; the family rooms have kitchen areas and showers, snacks and TV, so that families can feel more at home. Last year, the organization began its Ronald McDonald Care Mobile, which gives eye care and prescription glasses to under-insured and low-income children around the bi-state area. The footprint of the organization’s generosity continues to grow.

Volunteers and other organizations bring in food and make dinner for the families every night, and many individuals and companies in town donate their collected aluminum can tabs. Everyone who supports the organization makes a difference, Harbaugh says, from those who donate Cardinals tickets so the families can escape reality for an afternoon, to McDonalds customers who toss in their change at the drive-thru window.

“Every single morning, walking into the house and getting my coffee in the kitchen, I meet families and hear their stories,” Harbaugh says. “The thing we hear over and over is, ‘Thank you so much, we couldn’t have done it without you. The St. Louis community is unbelievable—what you’ve provided for us,’ They’re so appreciative of St. Louis for taking care of them in this difficult time, and we get the privilege of being with them on a day-to-day basis.”

Volunteer Spotlight: Mary Brooks

Fifteen years ago, after retiring from her job as a nurse, Mary Brooks saw the Ronald McDonald House on TV, advertising that the organization needed volunteers. She had never heard of it before, but decided to give it a try.

Brooks’ chief responsibility is to work with social workers at the area hospitals, to coordinate and bring families into the houses. Some days, Brooks says, she might help as many as four families move into the facilities, depending on how many rooms are available. She gives them tours, explains the rules and helps them get settled in. Other days, there might be no room available, so she writes thank-you letters or answers the phones—whatever administrative duties need to be done. She also helps with the Tab Top Program, which collects aluminum can tabs to be recycled. Each May, she helps organize a tab top collection contest, which brings in at least 12,000 pounds every year.

Because families can stay as long as their child is in the hospital or needs treatment, Brooks says she often forms strong bonds with them. Grateful for all the organization has given them, families often keep in touch after they’ve left the house, stopping by after check-ups with the doctor or sending thank-you notes.

“We had one young mother who was here for over a year and didn’t pay us one dime,” Brooks recalls. “Her child was born premature and was in the hospital the entire time. To be able to provide a home for her and have her feel comfortable and secure while she was under all that stress, just being able to see them relax a bit when they’re at the house, that’s rewarding.”

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